On September 7, hours after the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) held a rally in Leh and issued an ultimatum for Muslims of Kargil to leave town over the Saldon affair, a young Muslim man from Kargil and his girlfriend, who had met up at her house for his birthday, were roughed up. The LBA allegedly barged into the house in Leh, terming their meeting a “provocation”. The next day, an FIR was lodged. Around the same time, a Muslim shopkeeper in Leh was pushed around for keeping his meat shop open. September 7 was a full moon day, when Buddhists do not consume meat and, as per locals, there has been an understanding between the two communities for decades to keep meat shops shut on full moon and new moon days.
The next day, another Buddhist-Muslim couple were seen together late in the evening in Leh and violence erupted. However, the two parties decided to settle the matter without involving the police.
The incidents triggered by the Stanzin Saldon a.k.a Shifah and Murtaza Agha affair have underlined the growing distance between the two regions of Ladakh — the part of Jammu and Kashmir considered untouched by its politics.
Leh last witnessed communal clashes in 1989. Three Buddhist men were killed, and their pictures line the walls of the LBA’s head office in Leh. Nawang Rigzin Jora, the LBA president as well as the Congress Leh MLA and a former J&K minister, says the clashes began with a scuffle between him and a few Muslim youths, and took on communal colour. As a young activist, Jora says, he had raised concern over lack of representation of Ladakh in the state Cabinet, and “the other side” saw his assertion as a threat to their position. While there were some arrests, the cases were subsequently closed.
The Saldon-Murtaza controversy has reinforced the LBA’s position as flag-bearers of the Buddhist faith. Its main office is housed in the compound of a 20th-century Leh Buddhist temple. About its members, vice-president P T Kunzang says, “Anyone born into the Buddhist faith in Ladakh becomes a member of the LBA.”
Although the LBA claims to be an apolitical body, many of its former leaders have gone on to become legislators. Ladakh’s sole MP and its first from the BJP, Thupstan Chhewang, also once headed the LBA, and calls it “the apex body for Buddhists in the region, that safeguards their interests”.
More importantly, the LBA’s growing strength reflects the chasm between Kargil and Leh in Ladakh, that began for economic reasons but is slowly taking the shape of a Buddhist-Muslim divide. While Leh is 80 per cent Buddhist and 20 per cent Muslim, the numbers are exactly the reverse in Kargil, which is predominantly Shia.
Traditionally, Muslims were held in high regard in Leh and a special place reserved for them at Buddhist functions. Ladakhi writer Abdul Gani Sheikh, 78, says, “Separate arrangements were made for them as important guests.”
Muslims also held a prominent place for being the traders of the region, richer and more knowledgeable because they had travelled far and wide. Buddhists were traditionally farmers and looked up to them.
That changed after the India-China war of 1962, when Ladakh was linked to Srinagar by road. After 1974, the change came more rapidly as Ladakh was opened to tourists. Soon, even as tourism flourished in Leh, which was the district centre, Kargil remained only Ladakh’s transit point to the Valley. Leh is connected to the rest of the country through its Kushok Bakula Rimpochee airport while the airport in Kargil remains primarily a military airfield. Kargil town is separated from Leh by 250 km, a drive of approximately five hours.
The rush of visitors brought prosperity to Leh, and with it, the native Buddhists started seeking their own space in the Muslim-dominated state’s politics. In 1975, this resulted in Leh and Kargil being split into two districts, though the government jobs remained concentrated in Leh. In 1995, two Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils (LAHDCs) were created, with a budget of Rs 100 crore each, for Leh and Kargil.
While 18 of the 26 elected members of the Leh council are currently from the BJP, it has no presence in the Kargil council. The BJP’s growing presence in Leh is also reflected in other elections. Since 1967, 12 general elections have taken place in Ladakh. In 2014, for the first time, a BJP candidate won.
An LBA functionary who did not wish to be named told The Sunday Express that the biggest reason for the BJP win was “the promise of giving Leh Union territory status within six months”. But this promise is further strengthening the belief in Kargil that Leh enjoys a privileged position, for being aligned with the Centre’s politics. Kargil, in contrast, being predominantly Muslim, is seen as yoked to the state.
Chewang, who had formed the Ladakh Union Territory Front in 2000, before contesting the 2014 general elections on a BJP ticket, says one of the main reasons for his joining the party was its position on Article 370. “Without the abrogation of this Act, Leh cannot get Union Territory status. We do not want to be part of Kashmir’s separatist politics but the national mainstream. Ladakh is very important strategically. Therefore, peace, stability and development are key to the region and that will be possible with the BJP in power in Ladakh,” he says.
Siddiq Wahid, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and former vice-chancellor of Islamic University, Kashmir, says Delhi politics has always played a part in driving the two regions apart. “If you examine the recent history of the state, Kargil has in large part been ignored because ‘Ladakh’ was conflated with Leh and presumed to be ‘Buddhist majority’.”
The curator of the Central Asian Museum in Kargil, Ajaz Munshi, quips that had it not been for the war with Pakistan in 1999, a majority of India’s population perhaps would not have heard of Kargil.
However, Leh leaders say that Kargil’s relative backwardness is much of its own doing. A schoolteacher at the government middle school in Leh, Tsering Wangmo, asserts that it comes down to this: “While both girls and boys are encouraged to study in Leh, only boys are primarily pushed towards formal education in Kargil.”
Wangmo claims that the education gap creates another crucial dynamic. It means that educated men from Kargil end up interacting more with educated Buddhist women when they begin travelling to Leh, which has more employment opportunities.
Both sides agree that much of the recent mistrust springs from “conversions” to marry a person from the other community. The LBA’s Kunzang claims that over the past 25 years, more than 90 Muslim women have converted to Islam — a figure that cannot be corroborated by any official source. “This cannot all be for the simple reason that people fall in love,” Kunzang argues.
Chhewang adds, “All religious bodies of Ladakh agree that conversions should not take place.” He also claims that after the clashes of 1989, “a written agreement was signed by the three main organisations that conversions would not be encouraged”.
The Anjuman Moin-ul-Islam and Anjuman Imamiya, which represent the Sunni and Shia Muslims of Kargil, much like the LBA does for Buddhists, say they don’t know about any such document. While insisting that they too are against conversions, the two Anjumans underline their own limitations in such matters. The president of the Anjuman Moin-ul-Islam, Dr Abdul Qayoom, says, “Perhaps my predecessors signed such an agreement, I’m unaware. But the fact is that we are totally against religious conversions, and agreements between religious organisations will not stop these things.”
Anjuman Imamiya head Ashraf Ali adds that when cases of conversion come up, all organisations sit together and resolve the issue before it spins out of control.
Chairman of Kargil LAHDC Kacho Ahmed Ali Khan criticises the LBA ultimatum in the Saldon-Murtaza case, pointing out that there have been instances of Muslims converting to Buddhism in Kargil as well, “but they have never been threatened”. In Garkon village, he adds, entire Muslim families have converted to Buddhism.
Garkon is one of four villages in Kargil considered ‘Aryan’, for being “inhabited by descendants of Alexander’s Army”.